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Centenary of a pioneering heart surgeon

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Michael DeBakey

Michael Dabaghi (later anglicised to DeBakey) was born to Lebanese parents in Lake Charles, Louisiana, 100 years ago, on 7 September 1908.

His father was a pharmacist but Michael chose to become a surgeon. He left medical school in 1932.

Of that period he was quoted as saying: “There was virtually nothing you could do for heart disease. If a patient came in with a heart attack, it was up to God.”

When only 23 years old, and still at medical school, DeBakey invented the roller pump. Twenty years later it became a vital part of the heart-lung machine that made open-heart surgery possible.

While serving with the American army during the 1939–45 war, DeBakey helped to develop the concept of doctors working close to the front lines. This led to a greatly improved rate of survival among the wounded troops

A direct result of this idea was the formation of the mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units that did such an amazing job during the Korean war.

DeBakey and his team pioneered many procedures now used in heart surgery. He was one of the first to perform coronary artery bypass surgery and the first to use the left ventricular bypass pump successfully.

He went on to perform heart transplants, pioneered the use of dacron grafts to repair and replace blood vessels and performed the first successful patch-graft angioplasty.

Heads of state were among his patients. They included the Russian president Boris Yeltsin, whose operation he supervised in 1996. DeBakey was himself 88 years old at the time.

He also treated the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan and the Duke of Windsor as well as US presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

He remarked at the time that celebrities did not get special treatment on the operating table: “Once you incise the skin, you find that they are all very similar.”

As well as being a heart surgeon and inventor he trained hundreds of cardiovascular surgeons. In December 2005, at the age of 97, he suffered damage to his own aorta. He had himself pioneered a surgical treatment — known as the “DeBakey procedure” — to deal with this condition.

In February 2006 he became the oldest patient ever to undergo the procedure for which he was responsible.

He left hospital in September of that year in good health but died on 11 July 2008, just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday.

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